Described as both a legal eagle and a cyber-warrior, Geoff Blackwell (Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Omaha) considers representing tribal voices in Washington, D.C., moving the needle on the digital divide, and increasing tribal business among the greatest accomplishments of his career. He became the first tribal member to work at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2000. For more than five years, he directed FCC activities to incentivize the deployment of broadband and communications technologies across Indian country. From 2005-2010, he helped lead Chickasaw Nation Industries, Inc., before returning to the FCC in 2010, when he established its Office of Native Affairs and Policy. Blackwell served as the FCC’s founding chief through 2015, before moving on to his current job – Chief Strategy Officer and General Counsel – at AMERIND Risk, where he oversees finance, IT, human resources, communications, as well as its newest entity, AMERIND Critical Infrastructure. Through AMERIND Risk, Blackwell helps tribes protect their homes, businesses and workforces and acquire broadband technologies. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Virginia School of Law, Blackwell “stands on the shoulders” of a family dedicated to tribal and public service. His parents were both attorneys, and his mother Sharon Blackwell was the first Indian woman to work as an attorney in the Solicitor’s Office of the Department of Interior, later becoming deputy commissioner at the BIA.
While much of America enjoys the benefits of high-speed internet or “broadband” – such as distance learning, telemedicine, and online business – a stark contrast exists across Indian Country. According to the 2016 Broadband Progress Report of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency that oversees broadband regulation, 41 percent of people living on tribal lands have no access to broadband. It’s even worse in rural regions of Indian Country, where 68 percent of residents lack broadband.
AMERIND Risk, the only 100% tribally-owned and operated insurance solutions provider, has a groundbreaking new business line to address this huge need – AMERIND Critical Infrastructure. This new business will help tribes develop and deploy robust broadband networks which, in the 21st Century, have become as necessary as clean water, reliable energy, and good roads. This complements AMERIND’s core mission and values perfectly, as it already protects tribal infrastructures and governmental functions – tribal homes, businesses, and workforces.
“Technology is key to the future of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Tribes are part of the Internet Age, and for many priorities they want better internet access. They need it and deserve it now,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, AMERIND’s Chief Strategy Officer and General Counsel. Blackwell, a top legal expert in the field, is also a former senior manager at the FCC and the founding Chief of the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy (ONAP).
AMERIND has assembled a uniquely knowledgeable team in AMERIND Critical Infrastructure (ACI), whose capabilities can make high-speed connectivity a reality across more of Indian Country. ACI will use its expertise to provide management services to assess and determine broadband needs, plan and execute deployments, and complete the multi-step application and accounting processes for major federal subsidy programs.
The ACI team is led by Blackwell and the Director of ACI, Irene Flannery, another former FCC senior manager and the founding Deputy Chief of the FCC’s ONAP. Before working directly with tribes, Flannery wrote regulations and policies for almost two decades as a senior manager in several key areas of the FCC’s federal subsidies. She then worked with tribes across the nation in consultations and rulemakings aimed at the infamous tribal digital divide. Blackwell and Flannery crafted large parts of many of the FCC’s regulations and programs that benefit and incentivize broadband deployment on tribal lands.
For example, the FCC’s federal E-rate program makes $3.9 billion available every year to bring broadband to schools and libraries across the country. And yet, tribal schools and libraries have lagged far behind in getting a share of that funding. “Careful planning and bringing broadband to a tribal government building or institution, like a school or library, is often the first step in taking that connectivity to homes and communities. It’s about time that tribes benefit from these dollars and share in the advantages that technology brings, be it jobs, education, or a world of opportunities” said Flannery.
The ACI team also includes its new Manager of Tribal Critical Infrastructure, Kimball Sekaquaptewa, formerly employed with the Santa Fe Indian School, and is an expert in application processes and tribal-side management of key fiber and Wi-Fi deployment programs. She helped make Santa Fe Indian School nationally renowned for its connectivity capabilities. During the 2016 graduation ceremonies at the famous school, the IT network that Sekaquaptewa built supported the nationwide online airing of First Lady Michelle Obama’s graduation speech.
ACI also reflects AMERIND’s core value of social investment. Since 2001, AMERIND has provided funding for public service projects, charitable giving, educational scholarships, and investments promoting Native community health and well-being. ACI will also offer low-cost financing to provide the matching funds that many federal programs require. Both the lack of matching funding and very complicated application processes have been major barriers to broadband build-out across Indian Country. With ACI, that will change.
With a deep experience of Tribes Protecting Tribes, AMERIND Risk began 30 years ago to provide insurance coverage to tribal housing authorities when no other company would. AMERIND provides property and liability coverage, and offers tribal workers’ compensation and employee benefits programs. To protect against catastrophes, AMERIND utilizes sound management, investment, and diversification strategies.
Now, AMERIND brings together movers and shakers who know how to make billions of dollars available in federal broadband subsidies. “AMERIND is an institution of Indian Country, founded by tribes and operated by tribal people. Hundreds of tribes are its members. AMERIND can respond to this huge need knowledgeably and cost-efficiently, and ACI provides tremendous value to our Members,” Blackwell said. “The heart and spirit of our company is protecting tribal families and communities. We are always looking for more ways to continue that tradition.”